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The Zen of ‘A Dai’

~Transforming the architect’s contribution to society

Volume 4, 2016

By Lei Na

Fresh off his success as one of the architects behind the Beijing National Aquatics Center – more popularly known as the Water Cube, the iconic building that hosted swimming and diving competitions during the 2008 Summer Olympics – Zhao Xiaojun, President of CCDI, one of China’s largest architecture and engineering consulting firms, put away his drafting tools and stopped designing buildings.

He studied Buddhist scriptures, practiced martial arts and calligraphy, and designed a cartoon figure he calls “A Dai” which has become popular among his fellow CEIBS alumni. He depicts bits of his life and some of his philosophical beliefs in the cartoons. One recurring theme is that life will be limited if defined only by skills or profession. “Metaphysical things like faith, dreams, and goals should be what truly define your life,” says the CEIBS EMBA 2005 graduate.

While he was a practicing architect, it was not only his technical skills but his understanding of how to embrace humanity in his works that led many clients to commission him for their prestige projects. He could create the kind of building a human needed, his designs embraced their inhabitants’ lifestyles rather than just focusing on mere appearance.

But eventually Zhao began to look for ways to transform the work that architectural design firms do in China. “Architects have an ancillary role in the construction industry’s value chain, and their future in China is in doubt,” he says. “Mainstream Chinese culture is not ready to buy intelligent products, and it’s basically impossible to earn a large amount of money.” He wanted to move architecture to a higher position on the industry’s value chain, and determined that the simplest way would be to own the product itself. He believes that as incomes continue rising in China, there will be more consumers seeking higher-end design, creating a market for content-rich, creative real estate projects. 

As he looked around for projects, the Jilin native began to better understand China, and found himself drawn to the countryside. “The hills and rivers of rural areas are good, but they cannot be developed into scenic attractions that charge for admission,” he says. “Farmers are anxious to get rich; the government invests a lot in the countryside, and is anxious to see good results. To do this, they usually literally empty the villages; often there are no longer any dogs, and sometimes even no chickens. When you step into a village, you feel it’s a hollow place. When you shout, there are echoes. It’s become an extremely cold thing.”

Through his many field investigations he developed a unique philosophy towards rural development. It was becoming clear that if he was going to be able to realise what he calls his Dai Life Project, he needed to find a village willing to set aside a plot of land that could accommodate it.

“An entrepreneur from the city comes to the village and rents a farmer’s house in order to open an inn, which then earns more than the farmer’s restaurant located next door. The next year, the farmer will raise the rent he charges the innkeeper, maybe double or more at first, and then even higher after that. Eventually entrepreneurs from the city will stop coming to the village,” Zhao explains. He argues that if a village sets aside 50 mu of land for development that can be rented according to market prices, then inns built on that land can charge room rates which will accurately reflect their value. This will end up lowering transaction costs, benefitting both the villagers and the innkeepers. But when he tried explaining this to local officials, they didn’t seem to accept his logic.

But then his friend Chen Yao (EMBA 2002) told him about a village in Pujiang County, Sichuan Province called Mingyue (Bright Moon), and while on a business trip to Chengdu he asked Chen Qi, who worked in Mingyue Village, to take him there. Nicknamed Master Qi by the villagers, Chen Qi is a government official responsible for introducing urban elites to the village, in hopes they will settle down there. As they explored Mingyue, a villager presented Chen Qi with two heads of cabbage that had just been plucked from the ground, insisting she take them. Moved by the scene, Zhao says, “Their body language seemed to indicate that there was no distance between their hearts. I thought, ‘This government worker is really smart’”.

Chen Qi took him to an empty plot of land at one end of the village and told Zhao that if he wanted to locate his Dai Life Project there, she could grant him the land. Zhao was surprised. He had wasted so much energy trying to explain his project to local officials in other places, but here the government had already prepared the land for him. He immediately decided to take it.

Zhao wants to create a “new pastoral life circle” in China. He believes that urbanites will increasingly be attracted to the countryside, which can create new economic development opportunities in rural areas. Urban visitors can see where the vegetables they eat are grown, and meet the people who plant the oranges for them. Living in a homestay, people can understand the villagers’ way of life. He wants to build connections between man and nature, between urban and rural residents. The land in Mingyue brought him one step closer to realising this dream.

“I will devote the second half of my life to this,” he says. “This is a kind of necessary retreat where urban elites can be rejuvenated. I am now able to realise it. I believe this can be a huge business.”

The Five Elements

Looking to build more systematic management knowledge and channel his design talent in a more business-like way, Zhao enrolled in the CEIBS EMBA Programme in Beijing in 2005. During this period, he wrote down his ideas about the five stakeholders in rural development: villagers, local government, investors, manager (village head), and urban elites (new villagers). He put the villagers in the middle, surrounded by the other four. This pattern reminded him of the ancient Chinese theory of “the Five Elements”, i.e. the universe is made up of the five elements of gold, wood, water, fire and earth. He thought Mingyue Village could fit his design perfectly (see box called Zhao’s Mingyue Village Design).

Zhao’s Mingyue Village Design

Villagers = earth: the carrier. The villagers are at the centre, and carry the other elements. When villagers benefit the local community develops, and life improves.

Government = gold: the harvest. The government comes from the local community and is responsible for its prosperity. The government should create the conditions to develop the local community, make rules, and use its power to eliminate obstacles to development.

Investors = water: the facilitator. Gold nourishes water. Capital facilitates the economic development of the rural economy. Without capital, the cycle of the Five Elements will stop.

Urbanites (new villagers) = wood: plurality. Water nourishes wood. New villagers are like trees in spring, and are an important force in creating the local culture. They should be many in number and wealthy.  A single tree cannot provide all the wood needed for a house, and not every tree will survive.

Manager (village head) = fire: that which rises. Wood nourishes fire. The manager unites all the valuable individuals in the local community, and empowers the trees to grow and ‘rise like fire’.

The five elements form a cycle in which they support and “defeat” each other in turn. “Defeat” means to limit. For example, “earth defeats water”, that means capital will be limited by the villagers; if the villagers’ financial expectations for the project are too high, the willingness to invest would be lower. Investors should set the flow of their capital at a reasonable level, creating opportunities for villagers to build their own assets. Another example, “water defeats fire”; limited capital for public charity projects will strengthen the programme manager’s business skills. The need to show economic gain will help ensure sustainable development in rural areas. During a forum in Mingyue Village Zhao introduced his theory to county leaders. He said it was like talking with old friends, as they shared many of the same ideas.

Studies have shown that when a country’s average annual per capita GDP exceeds US$8,000, there will be a surge in the number of urban elites who return to the countryside, and Zhao expects this trend will happen in China as well. He already has many friends who are thinking about moving to rural areas, and a few have already done so. Most are financially well-off, and wanted a life of pastoral leisure and comfort. There have been many “new countryside” projects started in China, including villages for artists and musicians, but most were filled with urbanites whose interests conflicted with those of the locals. Zhao insists his will be different. “My rural development is not for middle-class ‘hermits’, but for helping to develop the local community,” he says.

Unlike some tourist destinations, Mingyue Village does not have scenic spots that can charge for admission, but it has its own attraction: Zhao’s so-called new villagers. Most of these urban transplants in Mingyue sit on the upper half of the economic pyramid, having been successful in the internet sector. They include television host and author Ning Yuan, who also has his own apparel brand “Faraway House Made of Sunshine”. He has opened a studio in Mingyue that uses natural materials for dyeing cloth. Li Qing is a master of industrial art who has opened a ceramics workshop for Shushan Kiln, a renowned porcelain technique, in the village. They are providing experiential products for tourists who visit the village. Thus Zhao’s model has attracted two new types of consumers to the village, the urban transplants and tourists.  

This cycle benefits all. The local villagers can earn money by renting their houses to the urban entrepreneurs as well as by working in the local service and tourism industry. Zhao explains that local hosts who are successful in developing a homestay business are good examples of rural entrepreneurs. As their income rises they also contribute more to developing the local economy. He is even opening a school to help train young people in rural areas for jobs in the local hospitality and service industry.  

Through his Xiangxiang Culture programme, Zhao is expanding on the ideas he launched in Mingyue Village. Located at the mouth of the Linxi River, this travel residence project is a platform where urban elites can invest by renting courtyards in the village to set up studios or homestays. Local villagers are hired as hosts, and to run digital platforms that promote local culture and products. Those without enough capital can find investors to partner with, or take advantage of ready-made financial products. “We look at the problems faced by these new rural residents and try to solve them. The result is a new product,” says Zhao. 

Zhao is a Buddhist, and believes that everything is “just like a dream”, yet he is not a nihilist. He worships no god. He has just chosen his life’s path with care, and firmly embraces his choice. As an entrepreneur, he calls his way of doing business “oneness with nature”, as opposed to “pillage and plunder”. The decisions he makes and the work he undertakes are all done according to the Buddhist principle of compassion for others. He calls this philosophy the Zen of A Dai, after his cartoon character.


A Dai Cartoon

Zhao says that on one hand he is the prototype for his A Dai character, yet on the other hand everyone also has their own version of A Dai in their heart.